The coast Guard’s “Matchbox Fleet” was comprised of 60 wooden, 83-foot cutters that performed dangerous lifesaving missions under fire at Normandy, pulling more than 400 men from the water.
One of these vessels was known as the “Homing Pigeon” and successfully saved 126 survivors, the most of any single ship.
The Homing Pigeon, officially named Coast Guard Cutter 16, had been serving stateside on anti-submarine patrols like the rest of the Matchbox Fleet before recieving orders to a new, secret mission. Navy Adm. Ernest King was going to use 60 of the Coast Guard ships to form Rescue Fotilla One, a D-Day lifeguard force.
The ships were repainted, renumbered, modified, and carried to England on frieghters. They practiced the landings on English beaches with the rest of the invasion force and, on Jun. 6, 1944, the rescue ships went in right behind the first wave of landing craft.
The plan had originally called for the Matchbox Fleet to stay away from the shores and some ships did stay two miles out. But many crews realized that they had to get closer to reach the men in danger and the Homing Pigeon was one of the cutters that moved forward.
It began its mission at 5:30 a.m., sailing back and forth near the coast and grabbing men out of the water. In the first four hours CGC-16 rescued 90 sailors and soldiers. That’s a save every three minutes.
The crew took the personnel they fished out of the water to the Navy’s USS Dickman where the wounded were treated. Over the course of the day, the Homing Pigeon would come to the aid of another 36 men, bringing the crew’s D-Day total to 126, all tallied on a board on the vessel.
Other crews distinguished themselves at Normandy as well. CGC-1 rescued 43 and spent much of the day within 2,000 feet of the beaches. CGC-34 pulled 32 British troops and sailors from the English Channel. CGC-53 rescued five men while under fire from a German shore battery. The HMS Rodney came to the cutter’s rescue and destroyed the shore battery with its naval guns.
After D-Day, the Matchstick Fleet continued their duties until Dec. 1944 when they were disbanded. In the seven months of operation, the 60 ships saved 1,438 people. Many of the ships were then transferred to allied navies where they served for the duration of the war.